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Un arte más útil / A more useful art

Un arte más útil / A more useful art



The yellow building at República de Colombia 42 looks like any other in the crowded Centro Histórico of Mexico City. Street vendors line the sidewalks, people spill out into an avenue where neapolitan pink taxis nudge past carts, bicycles, and scooters double stacked with shopping bags. 

I’m here to meet Raphael Villet, artist and founder of Play Press Zines, based in West Oakland. He’s in Mexico City for the third annual Rrréplica Zine Fest, an international gathering of “disobedient printers” and independent presses. 

I step inside. I immediately notice a large, black and white photo of the outside of the same building, blown up on one wall. The photo, taken in 1903, shows a group of men in suits standing on the two small balconies of the first floor windows, all staring solemnly into the camera from either side of a banner that boasts the carefully painted words, “La constitución ha muerto,” or “The constitution is dead.” The men are the staff of El Hijo del Ahuizote, a radical newspaper that was run by two of the famous anarcho-communist Flores Magón brothers, and this building housed their workshop. 

Today it is a cultural center and archive. It was reopened as La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote just a few years ago by Diego Flores Magón, great-grandson of one of the original brothers. 

On the way up to the second floor, the walls are covered with an exhibition of Swiss protest posters. There are tables of zines and presses from all over Mexico—Oaxaca, Morelia, Guadalajara—as well as Seattle, Chicago, New York, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Canada, Guatemala, and Germany. I climb to the third floor, where I see the jovial Play Press flags hanging in a bright corner.

“Hi!” I spot Raphael, pink sunglasses on and a flower behind his ear. 

We sit down and I ask to see the pieces he’s brought, all printed in variations of red and black. Raphael explains that printing in just two colors was initially a supply choice, but it’s become his aesthetic.

“It’s liberating to use two colors,” he says. “It allows you to be creative, to push into infinity rather than starting with infinity.”

Printing with his Ricoh machine, a cousin to the Risograph, he can experiment with density and opacity, creating a range of grays and pinks, and infinitely more variation with the paper, which he says mostly comes from estate and other sales. Each project plays with these components differently, bending the limits in new ways. 

“When I work with artists, I stress that it’s a collaboration.” Raphael says. “I see my role not as a publisher but as a facilitator,” he says. “I want to get rid of the power dynamic, and really what I’m doing is helping make it possible for them to realize their vision, and support them in a process they might not have done before.”

He’s brought pieces from East Bay artists Mothraqueen, Nadair Asghari, and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, among others. In the two years since he started Play Press, Raphael says he’s worked with around ten artists. Last year, he had a nine month residency at the Tenderloin Museum, where he set up a table outside with art supplies for people passing by to use. At the end, he published their collected artwork as a book. He’s made free business cards for Bay Area artists, and he prioritizes publishing artist books and zines by women and gender nonconforming people. 

“Exclusivity happens, even when you have a press in a co-op or center, or you’re making them for your friends, that is still exclusive. But I try to work with people who haven’t published a lot, or artists who could benefit from having a physical book of their work. Riso printing is filing a space right now because people aren’t getting published by traditional publishers, so we publish the work ourselves.”

Someone yells that there are quesadillas being sold upstairs, so we take a break. As I look around at the other tables, self-expression, collaboration, and disruption come up repeatedly, even more so than at other zine festivals I’ve been to. I later talk with Diego, the founder of the new La Casa del Hijo del Ahuizote, who says this is purposeful, a continuation of the revolutionary history of the space. 

“What we do here is not about art,” he says. “It’s about history, the archive, and politics.” When El Hijo del Ahuizote was published here, its purpose was to showcase satirical and political commentary against then-president Porfirio Diaz. The brothers Flores Magón are partially credited with the organizing and theoretical planning that turned Mexico’s general unrest into the revolution of 1910. Now, the building is a print shop once again.

“This is where the original newspaper was printed, so I thought of course wouldn’t it be great if we got a press? I found a Risograph, and even though I didn’t have the understanding of how to use it, we had the tools and the space,” Diego says. “Now we’ve learned. We aren’t part of the hegemonic art scene, and we make the things we want to make. It’s led to all different kinds of collaborations and stories being told, especially from the community around these few square blocks.”

When I make it back to Raphael, quesadillas in hand, I ask him what he thinks about this art/zine dilemma. He says he’s thought about it a lot, especially while taking part in the Arte Útil classes offered last year at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. 

“Of course there’s a model of exclusivity, because that’s what feeds commerce in art,” he says. “Who gets to decide what art is in an institution? People are angry, and they’re justified in that anger. People are sick of white guys being the ones selling art. What does society value? If they value a diversity of voices, they need to support and subsidize artists, they need to make it possible for people to make art.” 

“Institutions, like museums, are losing relevance,” he says. “We’re making our own spaces, or finding ones like this, that support us.”—Claire Mullen

You have to know that it’s not possible for it to be beautiful

You have to know that it’s not possible for it to be beautiful